A learning summary from the first phase of TLF England

The first phase of The Listening Fund in England has ended. We have learnt a lot. Much of what we have learnt has been captured in reports – reports from our partners, from the Centre for Youth Impact, from Real Insight and from InspireChilli. If you have the time, we recommend you read them all. They can be found on the ‘Resources’ section of The Listening Fund website.

However, we know many might not have the time to read one 30-page document, nevermind several. This blog is therefore a summary of these reports. It is necessarily incomplete but we hope it will provide you with an insight into some of the key lessons which have emerged since 2018, and encourage you to consider how the organisations with which you engage listen to those they seek to serve.

This summary focuses on what our partners have learnt as captured through the Centre for Youth Impact’s evaluation (CYI), partners’ end of grant reports, the Real Insight report (RI) and visits from The Listening Fund. The InspireChilli piece stands as a slightly separate piece due to its focus on partners’ responses Covid-19. An executive summary of that fascinating research can be read here.

Two things stand out from the reports. Firstly, that partners have been honest and reflective, with the Fund and the CYI, in a way which feels unique. Partners are not trying to ‘sell’ their impact and as a result we have learnt much more about the challenges involved in changing listening cultures. Secondly, the reports make it clear how much listening practices and cultures are about power; from whether young people have the power to hold organisations to account, to whether organisations have the power to challenge funders and ensure they have the resources and flexibility to make changes to the way in which they work.

There is so much more to learn about listening – how to close the feedback loop, how to effectively change organisational cultures, how to inspire and support other organisations to improve their practice. Neither this summary nor the reports from which it draws provide neat answers to these questions, but collectively they do suggest that asking such questions is important in helping the sector better serve young people.

Learning from TLF England partners

  • The Listening Fund has provided resource for work which partners have long valued but not previously had the capacity to undertake in a meaningful, systematic way (CYI, p4, p9). As one partner put it in their end of grant report: “Without both the funding and the learning input from The Listening Fund, we would not have been able to explore these ideas. It isn’t just the funding that supported us to do this, but also the space given to us by TLF – the space to explore, to realise mistakes and rework our ideas without the threat of losing funding.”
  • However, given the long-standing underinvestment in this work, the short timescale of the Fund and the relatively modest grants it provided, many partners’ listening culture remains a work in progress (CYI, p10, p16).
  • The ongoing need for development has been emphasised by the realisation amongst many partners that their listening work was not as strong as they had previously believed (CYI, p23). As a result, some partners focused on ‘back to basics’ listening, recentring organisations around young people’s needs, wants, ideas and opinions (CYI, pp.10-11), and delayed the involvement of young people in Trustee boards and other higher-level listening activities (Gendered Intelligence, for example).
  • Some partners faced circumstances which further disrupted their work, including loss of key members of staff and unstable funding environments (CYI, pp15-16). These were two of the key barriers to developing good listening practices identified by partners and the Centre for Youth Impact, as well as managing competing agendas and disconnected services within one organisation (CYI, pp15-16). Partners working with Real Insight identified additional barriers including the importance of engagement and support from the Senior Management Team, and fact that too many Trustee boards were not representative of those they sought to serve (RI, pp4-5). They also felt that too often organisations’ systems and processes were set up to prioritise the needs of an array of stakeholders over those of young people (RI, pp6-8).
  • Despite these challenges, partners did report making progress in the quality of their listening practice. Partners said the Fund was instrumental in allowing them to experiment with different types of quantitative and qualitative listening, and to help establish when different approaches were appropriate (CYI, pp11-12). Over the course of the Fund, the number of organisations undertaking some form of anonymous listening almost doubled (CYI, p12) and there was a slight improvement in how representative partners’ listening was, although there remains scope for more effective outreach (CYI, p17).
  • Higher quality listening has resulted in change. At the end of the grant period, 83% of partners said they acted on what they heard to a high or great extent (CYI, p18). Examples of action based on listening include supporting care experienced young people to persuade universities to offer year-round accommodation to care leavers; piloting a tailored version of a programme to address the specific experiences of young black men in the prison system, co-designed by those with lived experience; increasing the number of young trustees on boards; making youth influence and voice a core pillar of a new organisational strategy; redesigning counselling services based on young people’s feedback; including young people in key decisions such as the recruitment of new CEOs; and changing physical spaces, such as waiting areas, according to what young people want (CYI case studies and partners’ end of grant reports).
  • It is important to note, however, that only 43% of young people surveyed said they had seen the organisation change something in response to their feedback. 41% were unsure (CYI, p18). This could be related in part to the difficulties which partners have reported in closing the feedback loop.
  • As a result of these changes, the evaluation by the Centre for Youth Impact identified four benefits to young people from the Fund: greater decision-making capacity; positive shifts in service delivery; young people feeling empowered; and, some young people have been able to influence wider systems (CYI, p25). “Change is not guaranteed because of the scope of the issues we are dealing with, but we can’t give up. It’s about keeping on returning to the issues and trying to tackle them from different directions, in the hope of making things better for [young refugees] in the long run. KRAN gives us the tools to do that.” (KRAN case study by CYI)
  • What were the key factors to success? The Centre for Youth Impact identified six enablers for this work: dedicated space and structures for listening to young people; ensuring these spaces and structures are safe and supportive; making listening activities fun and worthwhile; identifying staff members to drive the work forward; engaging with and listening to young people’s wider networks for a holistic view of their lives; and making sure listening is representative and accessible to all young people (CYI, pp13-15).
  • The Centre for Youth Impact also noted that some partners who had made the most progress did so because they had been able to secure additional funding from sources outside of TLF (CYI, p16).

The administration of a learning fund

Both the Centre for Youth Impact evaluation and partners’ end of grant reports provided some useful insight into how the Fund had been delivered.

  • There were some aspects of the work which were praised. In particular, partners were grateful for the flexibility of the funding arrangements and our openness to course correction (CYI, p24 and end of grant reports). Partners also reflected on the importance of funding for work which often gets overlooked (CYI, p4) and several end of grant reports said they valued the funder collaboration, feeling it would help demonstrate the importance of this work to the wider sector.
  • There was, however, scope for improvement. Whilst partners’ own capacity at times limited their engagement with the wider TLF cohort, there is an appetite for greater coordination and information sharing between partners, and a need to improve the Fund’s communication activities, making better use of its website to share ideas, information and learning.
  • In addition, partners have reflected that being part of such a fund does have significant implications on their time. Their contribution to the learning outputs of the Fund should be recognised in future grants; and the evaluation process should be co-designed to ensure it better meets all parties’ needs.

The reports and this summary show both an appetite for improving how we as a sector listen to those we serve, and how much work remains to be done. As noted in InspireChilli’s report: “It is important to be mindful of the message from young people when reading this report, that ‘listening is the bare minimum’. What matters most is what we choose to hear and do in response.”